Did You Know Bill Leavitt?
Today, like any other day, I saw my students, attended to business, and found a little time to work on some tunes. Unlike any other day one of the budding guitarists, produced a copy of A Modern Method For Guitar and asked me “Did you know William Leavitt?” “Bill, he liked to be called Bill” I quickly added then continued, “Yes, I knew him”. I then started the lesson, but when my student asked, “What was he like?” I began to tell my story.
While I had very few music education experiences as a child, the profession of music did choose me at age 19, the moment my friend Kemp let me play his sunburst Stratocaster and showed me a D chord, which caused everything else to leav my head and was replaced by all things guitar. At that point, my only connection to this world was Guitar Player magazine and the Berklee College catalog I acquired when buying a used guitar. That was the first time I saw the name of Bill Leavitt. I loved what he had written in Guitar Player magazine, always something like “guitar ensembles sound just gorgeous”.
I lived in Atlantic City New Jersey; it was as good a place as any because I met many famous players in my capacity of pool boy at Resorts International. I received the occasional impromptu lesson from an old family friend, the famous Tony Mottola, other luminaries and serious working guitarists. Most of them all had one thing in common: some sort of connection to or knowledge of the Berklee method and Bill Leavitt. For years, I tried to become a part of the big scene in Atlantic City but it was loaded with pros and I was in over my head, flunking auditions as fast as I could find them.
I was an amateur and a music career seemed impossible, despite my level best efforts I was going nowhere fast. At 26 I thought there was a good chance that I was never going to amount to anything; I literally couldn’t think of anything except guitar playing but I wasn’t very good at it. One day I declared I was going to attend the Berklee College of Music. In my small circle of working class people, it was just a cute little pipe dream. I found a local teacher and in exchange for $15.00 he quickly spelled it out for me: I knew nothing about music but how to copy records. I had no training, no experience, very little talent and no chance: Berklee was no place for me. I thought about it and decided to go up to the college for nothing more than a look see, buy some books and try to make some friends. It’s easy for a twenty something to blend in at a college I thought and I just wanted to see it. I’d had Berklee on my mind for years; I felt I owed it to myself to at least have a look and maybe check out a few of the guys there, all in order to find out if the local teacher was right about me.
When the day of the big road trip came, the little commuter plane from Atlantic City to Boston ran late. I didn’t make it to the school until the dusk of an arctic November evening. It was ice glazed cold, dark, depressing, and deserted; it was shaping up into another one of my infamous crapshoots. When I finally made it to the mythic 1140 Boylston Street, I ran up to the 5th floor, knowing that was the guitar department. I thought I was alone but at the exact moment I crested that final stair the door facing me opened and a portly older gentleman emerged with a trash can in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other, probably the janitor I assumed. “Hey Chief” I said, “Do you know anything about the guitar department, and is it any good?” The Chief did know about it and thought it was quite good. I told him I had been trying to become a guitarist and was desperate to learn. Since I thought he was the janitor I found it easy to let my guard down and relate to him as another working class person. I was cold, sad and I needed a friend so I began to share my situation a little bit with him; he was a nice old gent.
He invited me into the room from which he had emerged and began respectfully talking and listening to me and although he had to go somewhere he took 30 minutes and gave me some material to study and the requirements for the first proficiency at the school. I was taking up too much of his time and had figured out he was no janitor, so I thanked him profusely and asked his name, “Bill Leavitt” he said. Stunned, I managed to gush “Thank you Mr. Leavitt, I have been reading about you in Guitar Player and have tried to work with your books but found them too hard and….”. He stopped me and said to come back the following day, for a proper lesson and an evaluation. I knew he meant it and I was thrilled beyond words because I inexplicably felt the lesson was somehow just as important to him as it was to me. Unbeknownst to me, I just gotten my one and only big break in the music business; I met Bill Leavitt, the world’s greatest guitar teacher, and for some reason we took a deep and immediate liking to each other.
Thinking about it, I couldn’t believe the chairman of the guitar department at the Berklee School of Music was inviting some kid off the street to his office in the middle of his workday at semesters end. That lesson lasted an hour and a half and when I left that room, again unbeknownst to me, I just made the best friend I ever had in this world and spent the first of countless hours with the most important person to have ever entered my life. When I got back to New Jersey, I wrote and told him I doubted I would be able to get into the school but Bill promptly wrote back and told me to not at least apply would be a big mistake. With a letter of acceptance, I moved to Boston with barely enough money for one semester.
Bill was a busy important man, and also one of the world’s foremost authorities on guitars, guitarists and guitar playing. Everyone was in awe of him. I was hoping to talk to him again but I was not going to make a nuisance of myself as I had done to all the other guitarists I knew. Little did I know that I, as the new worst guitarist in Boston, had captured Bills’ interest? In my first few days, I ran into him all the time and he repeatedly and sincerely invited me back to his office but I dare not go, I was embarrassed about my relative ability level and also about my old flat top acoustic guitar with a clip on pickup. Besides, he was always doing something important or walking around with famous musicians.
Painfully unprepared for my experiences, I was quickly overwhelmed and completely lost in all classes. Once, I was the object of some harmless jibing in ear training class because I was asked to sing a solo and couldn’t hit more than one or two notes -we all had a little chuckle over it. Although I laughed it off, I didn’t see anything funny about it. I continued to redouble my efforts and apply myself even harder, but to no effect: the course material was becoming increasingly incomprehensible and I saw my dream of a Berklee education slipping beyond my reach.
I decided to go see Bill Leavitt, I told him I was in real trouble and it was really looking like I wasn’t going to be able make it as a Berklee student. That’s when I found out who Bill Leavitt really was. He told me to come back the next day at 8 AM, I was to bring all my books and everything else I had bought or been given. At that time, he and I went through all of it, harmony, sight-reading, ear training, whatever -the two of us hour after hour. I told him I couldn’t believe how much I had learned and thanked him for such a special day. He said as department chair he had sorely missed teaching and had enjoyed the session, and told me to return the following morning. That was a ritual we were to repeat again and again, every week, every semester, every year. At first it was driving people crazy but soon I became like the wallpaper, just a natural fixture in Bill’s office. We were tight, right from jump.
The magic of Bill Leavitt however was not what he did for me, it was simply who he was and the genuine love and deep respect he had shared with virtually every person who was in his sphere. Incredible people skills were his trademark. He was bigger than life, smoked like a chimney, drank buckets of coffee, told jokes that more were silly than funny and would sometimes fill up the entire 5th floor with a bellowing spring reverb of a laugh. When it was cold out, he wore a Frank Sinatra hat. He was a credit to his generation, now called The Greatest Generation, having served in the Navy close to the end of World War II. Any good Michigan Wolverine is steadfast, hardworking, genuine, respectful, fun loving, duty bound and down to earth –Bill was no exception. Like many of his contemporaries he understood how to be a true friend, how to celebrate and honor people, had a sense of culture and community and knew how to carry himself with the quiet class and dignity of a true gentleman -the very qualities which are all too scarce in our modern world. When a lady walked into his office, he would stand up. Quite simply, he was a prince among men and we all knew it. Everyone (and I do mean everyone) would have done anything for the man. That was probably because we thought he would have done anything for anyone he knew.
Bill was a family man; his wife Ginger was a beautiful, trim, and no nonsense redheaded pianist whom he worshipped. He originally thought she was out of his league but to his surprise and shock she had been hiding a deep infatuation for him. Once Bill was offered a big break out in Hollywood, but he stayed in Boston to be with his countless friends and start a family with Ginger. They had two daughters, April and Melody and several grandchildren (with an overabundance of stories concerning each one). Bill loved them and thought about them more that anyone could imagine. To honor his girls, he published a guitar duet called An April Melody.
Career wise he was most proud of his seven books and many distinguished former students, quite literally, a who’s who of guitar playing. Before he came to teach at Berklee he had regularly played on the Arthur Godfrey TV show, accumulated 100’s of album credits, written many an amazing song (one of which, My Baby’s Coming Home, Les Paul and Mary Ford recorded) and was known to stars, singers and celebrities as a top arranger whose charts could make even the weakest of bands swing like mad. Once, he was the talk of his suburban neighborhood because a black limo containing a famous chanteuse of the day appeared needing some emergency writing done to replace lost pages in her book. In his salad days as a guitarist, he was THE call in Boston, playing one dream gig after another. His command of the guitar was so jaw dropping in those days that his friends and colleagues nicknamed him ‘the creepy crawler’ because he could, whenever necessary, blow a kaleidoscope’s worth of mind numbing substitutions and extemporaneous chord melodies. When he did this, his hand looked like a spider inhumanly crawling over the neck. It was the kind of playing that the most of the guitar world still only dreams about. During the countless hours I spent playing with him, I never heard him miss a note or make even the slightest mistake. Really.
When I met him, I was a young 26, with lots of issues and rough edges. Interpersonally, I was certainly not hot stuff. Bill always knew what I needed to hear and gently offered kind criticisms and countless lessons in life. When I did or said something off center, he wanted to talk it over with me. During my time in Boston, I was a bellboy at the Park Plaza a situation that I often found difficult and humiliating because I was routinely carrying amplifiers and road cases for established musicians such as Chick Corea and Tito Puente who regularly stayed at the hotel. Bill taught me to be proud of the fact that I was working hard to pay for my Berklee education. He said that I had needed a starting point and helping out the occasional famous musician was not such a bad one. I regularly sought his advice on how to deal with the people I worked and studied with. When I realized that my mentor, hero and role model believed in me, cared about me and deeply and respected me, some of my rough edges magically became smooth ones. Today, I copy and pattern myself after Bill Leavitt. I think about him every day and vividly remember nearly every word he ever said to me.
The last time I saw Bill he asked me what I wanted to do, even though I had accumulated dozens of extra credits, I told him I just wanted to be a guitar player. Bill replied, “Karl, I don’t see anything in your way.” At that exact moment, I felt liberated in a new found confidence. For once in this life, because of those words, I began to see possibilities. I entered Berklee with very little talent, self-worth or knowledge but I left there with a degree in jazz performance and a new belief in myself, knowing I had finally accomplished something. Yes, I knew Bill Leavitt -he was my teacher.